By Mahvish Akhtar, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
Monday June 4th, 2007â€”The President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, imposed restrictions on the electronic media of Pakistan.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Amendment (PEMBRA) Ordinance (2007), issued just two days before the commencement of a National Assembly session, empowers the PEMRA, which is controlled by the government, to take action on its own against television channels that violate rules. The ordinance authorizes the PEMRA to confiscate equipment of broadcasters and seal their premises without consulting a council of complaints. The amendment increased the fine for violators from Rs1 million to Rs10 million.
The amendment also blocked television networks from airing talk shows and carrying out live coverage of events relating to the judicial crisis.
About 10 amendments were made in the PEMRA (Amendment) Act passed in February this year. An amended sub-section (5) of Section 29 reads: â€œProvided further that the Authority or the chairman may seize a broadcast or distribution service equipment or seal the premises, which is operating illegally or (in) contravention of orders passed under Section 30.â€ A new provision — Section 39 (A) — even authorized the PEMRA to make rules and regulations on its own from time to time by simply issuing notifications. It says: â€œThe Authority may, by notification in the official gazette, make regulations, not inconsistent with the ordinance and the rules made there under, to provide for all matters for which provision is necessary or expedient for carrying out the purposes of this ordinance.â€
Sub-section (4) in Section 30 of the law says: â€œLicense of a broadcast media may be suspended on any or the grounds specified in sub-section (1), by a duly constituted committee comprising members of the Authority. â€œPresident Musharraf had issued the original PEMRA Ordinance on March 1, 2002, to establish a body to regulate the electronic media. The National Assembly passed the law on May 17, 2005, with some amendments in the form of a bill (the PEMRA Amendment Bill).
The PFUJ (Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists) and the International Federation of Journalists expressed concern over the law. They said the new law was a negation of the freedom of the media and fundamental rights of citizens. The original law had provided for a three-member committee. The requirement was of one nominee each from a licensee and the PEMRA and a retired judge of a high court or the Supreme Court. This was an essential step in order to recommend cancellation of a license after receiving complaints.
PEMRA has a different view on the situation the spokesman said all concessions available in the ordinance remain intact and unaffected. â€œAs a matter of fact, the authority of the chairman to act against violations has been delegated to a committee of the authority,â€ it said. The government had only very recently enacted amendments to enable cross-media ownership as a manifestation of its resolve to further the cause of media freedom. The spokesperson also recalled that last week, the PEMRA had approved grant of TV license to owners of an English-language daily. â€œThere is no cause for any apprehension on this account.â€
On June 5th, the new laws were challenged in the Supreme Court in Islamabad and the petition requested the court to declare it against the fundamental Pakistani constitutional rights. The petition claimed that, â€œThe freedom of press is always treated as the most essential part of a democratic system to keep a check on other organs of the government from exceeding its powers.â€ Similar Petitions were filed in Sindh and Lahore High Courts.
June 6th, the last budget session of the National Assembly was disrupted because of unsatisfied journalists who were not allowed to cover the event. Because of the unrest the proceeding had to stop. Once they session started again the Speaker of the House Mr. Hussein showed extreme condemnation of the behavior by the journalists of Pakistan.
June 7th, it was another first in Pakistanâ€™s parliamentary history as Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain was said to have ordered his staff not to let journalists enter the parliament building to cover Thursdayâ€™s sitting of the National Assembly. This was his response to the activities of the former day. This was considered the breech of the right of the Public to know the proceedings of the Assembly.
Journalists had come out and started to rally against the new regulations as soon as they surfaced. This struggle is still going on, however the government is also sticking to its newly made regulations. Just recently the transmission of two TV stations was interrupted by PEMRA for some time. This also created a lot of chaos and un-rest in the journalistic community.